Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Bouviers & Con Men in the Spotlight


Popular movies have been serving as inspiration for Broadway musicals for at least the past two decades. The Producers, Hairspray, The Lion King and Kinky Boots all originated on the silver screen. The much-admired 1975 documentary Grey Gardens and 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are additional, somewhat more surprising picks for musicalization but both were well-received during their original New York runs.

Grey Gardens is finally making its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre through August 14th. Broadway divas Rachel York and Betty Buckley are headlining as "Little" Edie Beale and her dominating mother, Edith Bouvier Beale. Real-life relations of Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier, who famously married John F. Kennedy and served as First Lady, the Beale women fell from high society and were later discovered living impoverished lives in the run-down mansion after which the documentary and musical are named.

York plays Edith Bouvier Beale in the musical's first act, then takes on the role of "Little" Edie in act two while Buckley plays the aged Edith. York makes the transition fine and craftily "channels" Buckley at times during act one. Unfortunately, York wasn't in the best singing voice during Grey Gardens' opening night performance on July 13th. Whether the result of illness or this production's presumably intensive rehearsal process, she sounded raspy at times and had difficulty hitting some high notes. She was fine in terms of characterization, though, especially as irascible, tragic "Little" Edie. Buckley was predictably superb as "Big" Edie in act two.

Out actor Bryan Batt also has a featured role in act one as George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist and confidante. He is fine but Doug Wright's book for the musical hits audience members over the head with George's homosexuality. It seemed like the character's orientation is mentioned or referenced with nearly every line of dialogue involving George. This is definitely excessive.

Jeff Cowie's stunning set design includes both "before" and "after" views of the Beales' homestead. Since the documentary film noted the 52 feral cats (plus a raccoon family) that called Grey Gardens home at the time, the scenic design incorporates occasional, amusing projections of cats prowling across the window panes. Ilona Somogyi's costume designs are also eye-catching.

Having long been a fan of the documentary as well as of the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, I was prepared to like the LA production of Grey Gardens a bit more than I ultimately did. The book's flaws and Michael Wilson's direction proved distracting (especially whenever the actors had to narrowly navigate around openings in the stage over the orchestra). Still, it is an entertaining depiction of two enduringly fascinating characters.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as dueling con men in the French Riviera, was a modest hit upon its release nearly three decades ago but is not particularly well-remembered. Long Beach's Musical Theatre West is currently presenting the musical's local premiere at the Carpenter Center through July 24th. Buoyed by a host of catchy, funny songs by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), it turns out to be one of the few stage adaptations to date that actually improves upon its source material while retaining several of the film's funniest moments. The musical's original, 2005 New York production ended up nabbing 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Score.

Making MTW's staging even more of a must-see (though for adults only due to some risque material and crude language) are the bonafide Broadway stars heading its cast. Davis Gaines, who has the distinction of being the longest-running Phantom of the Opera in over 2,000 performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster, plays the elegant Lawrence Jamison. Jamison has made quite a living out of seducing wealthy women visiting the local casinos, aided and abetted by police chief Andre Thibault (Kyle Nudo). Gaines employs here the commanding presence and full-throated baritone that made him such a success as the Phantom, if in a less-threatening manner.

Benjamin Schrader, Gaines' fellow Great White Way import with credits in The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, is hilarious as the decidedly less-refined Freddy Benson. Yearning to live at the same level as Jamison's extravagance, Benson convinces Jamison to take him under his wing. The pair pull off a few cons together and Freddy is about to go his separate way when a new target, the sweet natured American "soap queen" Christina Colgate (MTW regular Rebecca Ann Johnson), arrives. They make a wager on which of them can swindle $50,000 from her first. Things get complicated when both men end up falling in love with her.

These lead cast members as well as the musical's high-stepping ensemble members raise the bar in terms of local performance. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Cynthia Ferrer's sparkling turn as Muriel, a wealthy matron who doesn't necessarily mind being taken advantage of financially. She stops the show several times with the songs "What Was a Woman to Do?" and "Like Zis/Like Zat" and their reprises.

The MTW orchestra sounded great on opening night under the direction of John Glaudini, who also happens to be serving as music director of the new stage adaptation of Frozen at Disney's California Adventure. I only detected a couple of singing glitches and some sloppy lighting, chiefly a lazy or wandering spotlight, during the premiere performance. For tickets, call 562-856-1999 extension 4 or visit the Musical Theatre West website.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reverend's Preview: Who Ya Gonna Call for LGBTQ Movies? Outfest!


Lesbian lawmakers, real-life gay porn stars, the world’s first lady ghostbusters and sexually-searching Asian Americans will headline some of the most anxiously anticipated movies at Outfest 2016 this month.

The 34th annual Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival runs July 7th-17th at multiple venues in the LA/Hollywood area, including the newly-renovated Ford Amphitheater. The Ford wasn’t available last summer for Outfest’s popular outdoor screenings, of which only one was presented at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

This year’s Outfest audiences will be among the first to check out what they’ve done to the revamped Ford. Five films will be shown there, including the LA premiere of a rebooted Ghostbusters featuring an all-star female cast. Comedy heavyweights Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones inherit the proton packs from their male 1980’s predecessors in an effort to stop evil supernatural forces from taking over Manhattan. They wisely hire Chris Hemsworth of Thor and The Avengers fame as their hunky receptionist, taking over from the decidedly brainier Annie Potts in the original Ghostbusters flicks.

Also screening at the Ford will be Kiki, the fest’s Documentary Centerpiece exploring today’s NYC drag ball scene not unlike the classic Paris is Burning; the world premiere of the fur-infused men’s sequel BearCity 3; Modern Love, another world premiere about a gay couple facing challenges on the eve of their wedding; and the closing night comedy Other People, starring Jesse Plemons (TV’s Fargo and Breaking Bad), Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford and Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods.

Christopher Racster, Outfest’s Executive Director, and Director of Programming Lucy Mukerjee-Brown wrote in a joint statement: “What better time or place to revel in our own stories — and to discover the commonalities within our own community — than Outfest Los Angeles? Our hope is that you will walk away from this year’s festival with a deeper understanding of the breadth of our community.”

Political Animals, one of the fest’s Spotlight screenings on July 14th, is essential viewing for anyone interested in our LGBT history. It premiered at last month’s LA Film Festival and ended up walking away with both the Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary.

Sheila Kuehl, Christine Kehoe, Jackie Goldberg and Carole Migden were the only openly lesbian or gay California state representatives in the 1990’s-early 2000’s. Individually and collectively, they took on Governor Pete Wilson’s 1990 veto of the state’s first gay rights bill, the first effort to ban anti-gay bullying in public schools in 1996, and the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. They also worked on behalf of people with AIDS and established California’s domestic partnership registry.

The inspiring documentary is nicely structured by director Jonah Markowitz, who provides incisive, insightful examinations of each legislator’s personal background as well as their political career. Most dramatically, it literally shows how far California and the nation have come over the last 26 years in accepting their LGBTQ citizens thanks to these four women. The film culminates in a modern-day dinner scene with the quartet at which they humbly declare “we didn’t know we would be such groundbreakers.” Of note, Kuehl is today an LA County Supervisor.

Making its US premiere at Outfest on July 13th will be the long-awaited movie version of Holding the Man. Based on the autobiography of Australian actor and playwright Timothy Conigrave, it recounts the romantic but ultimately heartbreaking love story between Conigrave and John Caleo. After meeting in high school, where Caleo was captain of their football team, the pair forged a relationship that’s been referred to as Australia’s Brokeback Mountain. Name actors Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Fox play supporting roles in this sure-to-be-memorable film.

Women He’s Undressed is another film with roots Down Under screening on July 9th. This fantastic documentary by excellent Australian director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, the 1994 adaptation of Little Women) uncovers the little known life of gay, Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. Armstrong utilizes both interviews with his still-living peers and dramatic re-creations of episodes from the designer’s life, including his secret affair with Cary Grant.

Rounding out my recommendations of movies to catch at Outfest 2016 are Looking: The Movie, the big-screen conclusion of HBO’s series about three gay friends living in San Francisco; a special screening of 1983’s bisexual vampire love story The Hunger, co-starring the late David Bowie; Spa Night, starring Sundance Breakthrough Performance Award winner Joe Seo as a Korean-American man who discovers his homosexuality when he takes a job at a men’s health club; the US premiere of Outfest UCLA Legacy Project’s revelatory restoration of the 1919 German film Different from the Others, the earliest surviving positive portrayal of a gay protagonist; and King Cobra, inspired by the real-life struggle of two competitors over the career of gay adult superstar Brent Corrigan.

In addition to a star-making performance by Garrett Clayton as Corrigan, the cast of King Cobra boasts James Franco (who also produces), Molly Ringwald, Alicia Silverstone and Christian Slater. Franco will be presented with Outfest’s inaugural James Schamus Award, honoring his considerable efforts to bring LGBTQ stories to the forefront of current cinema, immediately prior to the film’s screening on July 16th.

For the full festival schedule and to purchase passes or tickets, visit the Outfest website.

Preview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Still the Lord of the Jungle


Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic creation Tarzan is swinging his way to the big screen this weekend for the first time since Disney's animated adaptation in 1999. The Legend of Tarzan, starring True Blood's Alexander Skarsgård in the title role, mark's the character's first live-action appearance since 1998's woeful Tarzan and the Lost City.

While Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) remains for me the definitive cinematic exploration of the jungle lord's animal upbringing and eventual humanization, the new movie has much to recommend it. Skarsgård definitely brings a suitable physique and physicality to the role, even if he doesn't exhibit much range in his facial expressions. The film is stunningly shot by up and coming cinematographer Henry Braham (Guardians of the Galaxy) and boasts exquisite sets by Oscar-winner Stuart Craig (who previously, similarly designed Greystoke). Director David Yates, who helmed the last four films in the Harry Potter series, confidently orchestrates the drama as well as the movie's impressive action sequences.

As the story begins, Tarzan has married his longtime love, Jane (Margot Robbie), and assumed his entitled position in London's Parliament as John Clayton, Lord of Greystoke Manor. It isn't long, though, before he is lured back to his former home in the Congo to serve a seemingly political purpose that turns out out to be a conspiracy involving both a vengeance-minded tribal chieftain (played by Djimon Hounsou) and the evil envoy (Christoph Waltz in his latest villain role) of Belgium's greedy King Leopold. When Jane is taken prisoner, Tarzan recruits both his human and animal friends as well as George Washington Williams, a real-life US representative played by Samuel L. Jackson, to take their now-shared enemies down.

There is considerably more history and fact-based political intrigue in The Legend of Tarzan than in most previous iterations of the ape man's story. As a result, kids will likely continue to prefer the Disney version. But for adults, Yates & Company's film is the most ethnically, culturally and ecologically respectful depiction of the character to date.

During a press conference I attended last weekend in which Yates, Skarsgård, Robbie, Hounsou and Jackson all participated (Waltz was disappointingly unable to attend), they all spoke of how this more historically-accurate and mature approach appealed to them. Yates spoke of how he was drawn to the screenplay's "sexual, sensual" take on Burroughs' stories, which is understandable after directing four youth-oriented Harry Potter movies in a row. Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Hustle & Flow's Craig Brewer co-wrote the script.

Skarsgård handled inevitable questions about why he didn't wear Tarzan's traditional loincloth more with humor and aplomb. "I begged David for months to let me wear the loincloth," he joked. Skarsgård wears trousers of the time, though perhaps a bit more form-fitting, throughout the movie but does don a loincloth ("more of a sarong," Skarsgård calls it) for the film's final scene. No stranger to nudity as illustrated by True Blood, Skarsgård still shows plenty of skin in The Legend of Tarzan. He is fleetingly nude during flashbacks to his early, ape-reared jungle years.

Robbie makes the most beautiful and resourceful big-screen Jane ever (sorry, Maureen O'Sullivan and Bo Derek) but her performance struck me as too contemporary. She charmingly shared during the press conference that, due to her youth, Disney's Tarzan served as her primary previous exposure to the characters. The screenplay doesn't help her in this regard, most notably during a bizarre exchange she has with Waltz's villainous yet devoutly-Catholic Leon Rom that alludes to the 21st-century scandal resulting from the sexual abuse of children by priests. Rom's employment of a killer rosary also gives the film a distasteful, unnecessary anti-Catholic feel.

The inclusion of George Washington Williams is the film's most novel element yet also proves to be its most unexpectedly poignant. In one scene, the character recounts the mistreatment black men and women just one generation earlier than him suffered as slaves but concludes it was little compared to the suffering inflicted on Native Americans. Jackson spoke in depth about the research he did into Williams' life, of which he knew little before receiving The Legend of Tarzan script. The actor also joked about how he, unlike Skarsgård, had to "get in shape" for his role by gaining 20 pounds after he had lost considerable weight filming Tim Burton's upcoming Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Even if doesn't ultimately rank among the very best Tarzan movies made to date (of which there are over 100), the ape man's latest adventure provides more food for thought than the typical summer blockbuster in addition to the requisite action and spectacular special effects.

Reverend's Rating: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.